Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Stars on Parade

The All-Star game was actually quite entertaining last night. While it's always fun to the see the greatest stars in baseball on the same field, it seldom makes for great games. Usually the games are dominated by pitching. Starting pitchers, who are used to pitching 6 or 7 innings are asked to go only one and therefore don't have to worry about conserving energy. Closers usually dominate for the one inning that they pitch in the regular season and they usually do the same in the All-Star game. This game was different as the closers gave up five of the nine total runs scored in the game. The game ended on a fly out with the bases loaded in a one run game after the NL had scored two runs off of the AL's best reliever in the first half of the season (J.J. Putz of Seattle).

The game started with a tribute to San Francisco's greatest player, Willie Mays. The reception he received, while it was quite warm, was nothing compared to the outpouring of emotion that accompanied Ted Williams as he made an appearance before the 1999 All-Star game in Boston. I'm sure they were trying to recapture the magic of that moment, but it was just not quite the same. The fans saved their biggest ovation for Barry Bonds who gave them a thrill when he drove a pitch to the base of the left field wall that was caught by Magglio Ordonez. Barry, who was quite vocal during the All-Star festivities about Bud Selig and the question of whether he will be at the park when Barry breaks the home run record, seemed to really savor the overwhelming support of his hometown fans.

Ichiro Suzuki won the MVP award after a 3 for 3 night that included the first inside-the-park home run in All-Star game history. Ichiro turned on the jets after his fly ball bounded away from Ken Griffey Jr. in right field. He made it home easily and scored standing up. His home run also gave the AL a lead which they would never relinquish. Ichiro is in the last year of his contract with Seattle and can test the free agent waters at the end of the season. There are reports, however that he has almost reached an agreement with Seattle that would pay him close to $100 million over the next five seasons. Personally, I think that's an awful lot of money for a singles hitter, but he is the "face" of baseball in Seattle and they really can't afford to lose him. In the past Seattle has traded future hall-of-famers Ken Griffey Jr. and Randy Johnson and allowed Alex Rodriquez to leave via free agency, rather than pay them fair market value. Given their current resurgence (they are only 2.5 games behind the Angels in the west), I don't think that their fans would have been too happy with the prospect of the club letting another potential hall-of-famer walk away.

Back the game itself, it was actually quite shocking to see the relievers fail as they did last night. The NL relievers gave up two home runs and the AL's best first half reliever also gave one up. It's not unprecedented however. In last year's game, Trevor Hoffman (the all time saves leader), gave up a game winning home run to Michael Young. And in 2003 Eric Gagne, who was in the midst of converting a still record 84 consecutive save chances, gave up a game winning home run to Hank Blalock. Poor performances in the All-Star game seldom have any real carry over though. I'm sure that the relievers will be back to being their old dominating selves starting tomorrow. Also, they are not usually forced to contend with an All-Star lineup every night.

This brings us to the interesting case of Atlee Hammaker. He was a 24 year old first time All-Star in 1983 when he faced Fred Lynn with the bases loaded. The National League had dominated the All-Star game over the previous 20 years. In fact the American League had only one victory (in 1971) since 1963. Hammaker came into the game with a 9-4 record and a 1.70 ERA. It appeared that he was just at the beginning of a very productive and perhaps exceptional career. All that changed with one pitch. He gave up the first and still to this day, the only grand slam in All-Star history (The AL has since gone 17-5 in All-Star play, including winning the last 10 in a row). And after that moment, he was never quite the same. He finished the season going 1-5 in his games after the All-Star game and never posted a winning record again (except for the following season when he went 2-0 in an injury shortened season). Now some will point to the arm injury that he suffered the following year as the reason that he failed to live up the potential that he showed in the first half of '83, but I'll forever be convinced that the grand slam that he gave up to Fred Lynn was the beginning of the end. He looked absolutely crushed after giving up that home run.

There are a couple of other examples of the All-Star game ruining careers but both of those instances involved injuries. Dizzy Dean had his toe broken by a line drive in the 1937 game. He tried to return too soon from the injury and changed his pitching motion and destroyed his arm. In the 1970 game Pete Rose ran into catcher Ray Fosse during a close play at home plate. Fosse suffered an undiagnosed separated shoulder and was never the same player again. I do enjoy the All-Star game, and for the most part, I think the players do to, but for me the first thing I always think of is the look on Atlee Hammaker's face after giving up that home run to Fred Lynn. Watching the game on TV: Free. Buying a ticket to All-Star game: $200. Watching someone have their hopes and dreams crushed right in front of your eyes: Priceless.

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